By Kabir Nagpal
As we approach the 2019 ITTF-ATTU Asian Table Tennis Championships, talking to Chen Meng gave us a real opportunity to get into the mind of a champion. Having started the year at no.4, she has had a splendid run of form, which truly peaked when she won the women’s singles title on home soil at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open in Shenzhen, claiming top spot on the women’s world rankings.
These last few months have seen the world’s elite female athletes jostling for position and Chen Meng’s undisputed claim to the #1 spot has been a journey to behold. After missing out on the gold in Budapest, she has won both ITTF World Tour China and Korea Opens, facing the toughest of competition along the way. When asked about what changed after the 2019 World Championships, she admitted:
“I feel like it is not a sudden change, but more of a process. I built up my confidence through series of events before the World Championships. I won some titles on the World Tour then I had the belief to play in the World Championships. Without those titles, I wouldn’t think about playing in Budapest. I did know many things before but it was difficult for me to actually execute those things. Maybe because my belief was not as strong as it is today.” Chen Meng
Building her belief one match at a time, Chen truly needed to do so against the very best. One of those confidence building matches was against her senior compatriot and reigning Olympic champion Ding Ning at the Korea Open final in Busan.
The “Queen of Hearts” put in a string of amazing performances to reach two consecutive finals on the World Tour this summer (Korea and Australia), yet she was unable to claim the top prize at either event. The first of her two final defeats did not so much highlight her shortcomings, but rather demonstrated just what a phenomenal, natural-born winner Chen Meng is. She overpowered Ding from the outset, charging to a 4-1 victory (11-5, 11-6, 11-5, 7-11, 11-9).
When it comes to mental strength, the 25-year-old surely matches up with the greats. Her record in women’s singles finals on the ITTF World Tour is 12 wins from 15 appearances. So, how does she deal with the pressure that comes along with such an outstanding feat?
“I feel I am generally ready on many aspects during the World Tour matches, including physical energy and techniques. The only aspect that I get concerned about is the mental control. It was naturally different at the World Championships, considering I had never made it to the main events’ finals and I didn’t know how I would perform in that situation. At other events I can control myself pretty well.” Chen Meng
This truly reflects on the mindset of an athlete aware of the stakes – different sizes for different events – and it begs the question as to how the pressure of a World Championships could impact on a player – even of Chen’s mental toughness – from the moment she arrived in Budapest?
“The first day when I stepped into the venue I was very excited. Then the second day turned out to be super tiring. I was so sleepy which had never happened before. I thought I would be quite excited after arriving, but it was weird in Budapest. Even my alarm clock couldn’t wake me up. I was thinking, “Is this because I’m nervous?” (laughs) Because I never felt this way before, it was weird for me. I couldn’t sleep well, then I came to Ma Lin, my supervisor coach, who knows I always have good sleep, and he couldn’t tell the exact reasons but encouraged me in my way. Afterwards I realized I was just too nervous.” Chen Meng
For any young athletes, reading a quote like that from the top players in the world, must be heartening. It displays the humanity of our top stars in table tennis, and assures that at the end of the day being nervous is probably a sign of good things to come.
Facing off against Liu Shiwen in the World Championships final, Chen knew this would be an experience that would change her competitive perspective. The red-hot intensity of battle was palpable for players and spectators alike, heightened by their pre-founded rivalry within the Chinese national setup. Before and during the match, just what was going through Chen’s mind?
“I never lose my appetite before matches, but that night before the final, I couldn’t even sleep. During the match, I felt that she was much more determined than me, 100% devoted to the contest. She controlled the rhythm. It was similar to when I was in control in the semi-final against Wang Manyu. All the preparations before the match were totally different. I actually prepared a lot, as much as I could. I was afraid to encounter some situations which I didn’t think about before the match. But at last I found that all my preparations did not completely cover me for this final against Liu Shiwen.” Chen Meng
What turned out to be the key difference was the vast experience that 28-year-old Liu brought with her into that final. Having played consistent semi-finals and finals in World Championships, she knew how to ride the storm against Chen in Budapest. On the contrary, this was Chen’s first ever World Championships final. Her opponent was in charge on the court, and she knew it.
Once the dust had settled on that defeat, despite the disappointment, Chen looks stronger for the experience. The world no. 1 now knows what she needs to do and fully intends to learn from her loss to Liu in the best possible way:
“Liu Shiwen was much stronger than my semi-final rival Wang Manyu, not only in terms of technique, but also her ability to adjust and read the game. I still need to learn from her, to find that explosive power to fight for the championships when I stepping into a final.” Chen Meng
Finally, Chen has been very vocal about her main goal and it is – no prizes for guessing – to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. But what exactly does she think she needs to work on to reach that final pedestal?
“This year I feel like I’m much more keen to chase my dream. I think I am ready physically and technically, but I still need to improve my ability to seize matches, take my chances and maintain my mental control, which are totally different from sitting on the bench watching others play. I think this is related to major event experience. This year I reached the World Championships final, whilst before that I could only just imagine what that might feel like. Now that I have played a World Championships final, I finally know the real feeling – something I did not believe would be that hard, and be totally different from the semi-final.” Chen Meng
With Olympic Games qualification available to winners of the Asian Championships next week in Indonesia, perhaps Chen will have her eyes set on using her eye-opening experience in Budapest to secure her tickets to Tokyo.